Friday, December 07, 2018

'The Happiness We Cannot Call Our Own'

Though often quite insane, William Cowper is the quintessential poet of domesticity. That shouldn’t surprise us. Never married, childless, seldom employed, ever dependent on the charity of friends, he celebrates the quiet pleasures of hearth and home because he could never take them for granted. See this passage from Book IV, “The Winter Evening,” of his masterwork, The Task:

“Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups,
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful ev’ning in.”

Anxiety shadows Cowper’s love of homebound contentment. A letter to his friend Joseph Hill, written on this date, Dec. 7, in 1782, hints at loneliness and his uneasy sense of security, while celebrating a remembered feat of waiterly grace:  

“At seven o’clock this evening, being the seventh of December, I imagine I see you in your box at the coffee-house. No doubt the waiter, as ingenious and adroit as his predecessors were before him, raises the teapot to the ceiling with his right hand, while in his left the teacup descending almost to the floor, receives a limpid stream; limpid in its descent, but no sooner has it reached its destination, than frothing and foaming to the view, it becomes a roaring syllabub. This is the nineteenth winter since I saw you in this situation; and if nineteen more pass over me before I die, I shall still remember a circumstance we have often laughed at.”

The OED defines “syllabub”: “A drink or dish made of milk (frequently as drawn from the cow) or cream, curdled by the admixture of wine, cider, or other acid, and often sweetened and flavoured.” A sociable drink, though Cowper seems to use the word metaphorically. He wished for nothing more than comfort and security but was plagued with the conviction that God was punishing him for his sinfulness. He was fortunate to have friends who were happy to perform the role of surrogate family:

“How different is the complexion of your Evenings and mine! Yours spent amid the ceaseless Hum that proceeds from the inside of 50 noisy and busy periwigs, mine by a domestic fireside, in a retreat as silent as retirement can make it; where no noise is made but what we make for our own amusement. For instance, here are two Ladies and your humble Servant in company; one of the ladies has been playing on the Harpsichord, while I, with the other have been playing at Battledore and Shuttlecock.”

Cowper performs a generous act of inverted empathy for his absent friend: “The happiness we cannot call our own, we yet seem to possess, while we sympathise with our friends who can.”

No comments: